Shaun de Waal
Shaun de Waal

Okay, then, God is just a hypothesis

I’m glad my God blog got so many responses. The conversation continues, which can only be a good thing, though I do rather sympathise with those who say: “What? Are we still talking about this issue?”

I didn’t mean to reopen the debate about whether there is a God or not, or at least not as such; I wanted to look at the issue of “certainty”, as misrepresented by the emeritus professor of fertility. This seemed to me a way towards constructive debate in that, when it comes to matters of faith, and as several of the responses to the blog show, we are often comparing apples and pears, so to speak. We need the same yardstick if we are to make a fair comparison, and “provability” is one of those yardsticks.

We need equivalent measures if we are to evaluate God and science, as explanatory mechanisms, against each other. But we need to be careful about then positing an equivalence between God and science themselves. On one level, they are competing “certainties”, “uncertainties”, “ideologies”, whatever, but there are more important ways in which they are not equivalent. Some people posit such an equivalence when they argue that science is simply replacing religion as the new form of “certainty” to which we all have to submit.

I don’t think that’s true. First, science doesn’t burn people at the stake for having different ideas of God, or anything else. It doesn’t claim to be inerrant or unquestionable. It acknowledges the holds in its knowledge and seeks to fill them. Second, science makes different kinds of truth claims to religion. Perry Curling-Hope put this rather well, if perhaps simplistically, in a response: “Science is a method, not a position. Religion is a position without a method.”

Science posits a possible explanation for some natural phenomenon (called a hypothesis, from Greek for “foundation”), then refines it in the light of what can be discovered, and it becomes a theory (Greek: “speculation”). Depending on how much evidence supports that theory, and whether it can be proved or disproved, it becomes a “fact” — that is, a theory with a very high degree of provability. It’s an explanation that works. Evolution would be an example. Contrary to what I said in the last blog, and as corrected by at least one response, God is really just a hypothesis, and there is very little to support that hypothesis.

Then again, we may not be talking about the same thing when we talk about God. Are we talking about the figure I have described as the most successful fictional character ever? The figure that, as Slavoj Zizek notes, is the first fully anthropomorphized deity? (Hence the revolution produced by Jewish monotheism.) If we’re talking about a personal god, one who watches over humanity, answers your prayers, and so on, I find the arguments (not proofs) for his existence unconvincing. If we’re talking about some sense of the numinous, our sense of wonder, even a sense of divinity, that’s another story.

Mike Cope makes an excellent point in his response: “So much about religion, but nothing about religious or spiritual experience, which is fairly common among humans. Is, say, Buddhism, which does not postulate a god but urges meditation to come under the same criticism?
Where does African trance experience fit?”

I think this is a question well worth pursuing. It is not one that, in all their arguments for atheism, the likes of Dawkins and Dennett really come to grips with. Dennett suggests that scientists need to find ways to explain the emergence of religion in human history, and to do so in evolutionary terms. (Myself, I don’t think the “memes” argument quite does the job.) Dennett quotes people like Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained), but doesn’t go very far in coming to terms with the fact that, God or no God, we humans seem to have a sense of the numinous, of something bigger than and beyond us — what Wordsworth called “a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused”.

It is this sense that helps pulls us into religious belief. Social pressure, group allegiances and childhood brainwashing are doubtless key foundations of religious belief, but it’s that sense of “something far more deeply interfused” that provides the impulse from within to engage with the sacred in some way. Recent neuroscience posits a part of the brain that could be called a “God spot” — if stimulated, this part of the brain gives rise to the feelings of holiness, connectedness, even ecstasy, that some people identify with religious or spiritual practice.

Now there’s an interesting discussion.